Plenty has been said about a man whose most lauded deed (in mankind's collective memory) was done nine and a half years before I was born.
I don't really know very much about Neil Armstrong. He was, for me, as a child, more of a symbol than a person. I fantasized about the idea of being a Neil Armstrong more than I ever worked towards becoming one. I understand now, better than I did as a child, how unlikely it is that I will ever follow in his "small step." Even so, it was dreams of that step, dreamt as a small child, and expression of those dreams, that prompted parents and aunts and uncles to tell me, if you want to be an astronaut, you have to be good at math and science.
I don't know... maybe I would have pursued an education in science even if I hadn't spent my early years in the afterglow of the Apollo program. I don't think so. I think that all of the buzz about moon landings and the new Space Shuttle program that followed had a huge influence on my thinking. I believe that I am who I am today, in part, because of Neil Armstrong and the dreams that he and his colleagues inspired.
There are many photographs of the moon available online. Some amazing ones. Enjoy them.
Here is one that I took tonight, minutes after learning of Neil Armstrong's death.
Tomorrow (or possibly the day after), I will sequester myself, for approximately one week, from all contact with the internet (including email).
To prevent interruption of the stream of prompts posted here, I have pre-selected the next eight evocative fragments, and have scheduled them to appear automatically. Later, should I feel so inspired, I will replace some of them with full postings of my corresponding written exercises.
Also, should any of you have a specific suggestion for a writing prompt (typically between four and ten words is a good length), please send it to me, along with its source, and I will post it, credit you for its discovery, and write from it myself. Any of my exercises prompted by one of your suggestions, I will be sure to post in full.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "...dissuade me from tasting the pleasure of revenge..."
Source: Tartuffe by Molière
Truly, I tell you, I am not vindictive by nature. Rarely has a milder, more patient and understanding creature graced the verdant slopes of these fair peaks than I. And yet...
Nay, before I speak further of my elegant vindettas of yesteryear and of the ardency with which certain of your elders endeavored to dissuade me from tasting the pleasure of revenge, allow me first to revisit an era gone—a time when I beheld sun and sky and basalt column with eyes as fresh as your own, when with unseasoned ear I strove, even as you still may, to discern meaning in the rasp of ice on stone and wisdom in the screech of a prey bird. I will convince you, in spite of the terror writ big across your snowed face, that monster though I may now be hailed, I was once even as meek, flabbed, and impotent as yourself.
Tell me, now, you were born among the rivers, were you not? Or even the brooks, perhaps? Just so. I divined as much from the water in your eyes and the drip of your countenance. Even so was it for me. Birth among the rivers and childhood at a lake... only to be washed rough upon a desolate beach of puberty and to drag myself, step by soul-devouring stumble, across the waste of barren adolescence and the parched desert beyond. What tales to tell.
Hark, now. None of that worry! Strike concern from your brow. That you hear this now—that I trouble to speak to you of days that anticipated my ascent to these mountains—should breathe you a measure of calm. Waste words, I do not. Oh, now, is that a hint of smile upsprung cross your mouth? Savor you the irony of my claim? Yes, 'tis a truth that eloquence—or excess of verbiage, more like—is a fault for me to own.
But hear me, now, when I say, in both verity and humor combined, that I do truly love every single, individual word that issues from my own benectared mouth and that I would have my orations echoed far and wide by all who are favored to hear them. Therefore, I do not waste words. I do not wast words on any who is like to later taste my wrath and so silenced. I would have you go forth, whole, from this, my home, and transmit what you have heard to all whom you meet.
So then, rest you now upon your couch and listen to my tale in comfort and peace. For in that you are my voice to the world, you are my friend.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "...by locking her in a chicken coop at night..."
Source: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The second thing that Abby's keeper intended by putting Abby in with the chickens at night was that Abby should learn to appreciate her situation. Abby's keeper didn't like Abby. Abby's keeper hoped that when Abby was allowed to return to the cot under the stairs in the root cellar, Abby would work hard and not talk and not complain and not ask for more food. That was the second thing. The first thing that Abby's keeper intended by locking her in a chicken coop at night was that Abby should discover why the chickens weren't laying.
It was the weasels. That was why. But Abby's keeper didn't know about the weasels. Neither did Abby, and Abby never found out.
Weasels were more adept at finding chinks in the wooden panels of the chicken coop walls than Abby was at repairing chinks. Also, because neither Abby nor her keeper suspected weasels, small weasel-sized chinks were ignored. Abby's keeper was concerned about foxes. A fox or a dog could not fit through a weasel-sized chink. A fox would eat a chicken. So would a dog. A weasel though—a weasel was different.
A weasel would creep in among the chickens and whistle to them softly and soothe them with its long, warm body. It would lay along side of a fatted hen for an hour or sometimes half of a night. Then, when she was asleep, the weasel, ever so careful, would slip its teeth into her feathered neck and drain away some mouthsful of her blood. Quiet weasel. Smooth weasel. Gentle weasel. There were many weasels.
The hen might wake or might not. She might think it was a bug biting her. If she did wake, she would see the weasel's body nestled up against her own and she would go back to sleep. Giving blood to the weasel made her sleepy. The weasel never took enough blood to kill a hen. Just enough so that the hen was weak and wouldn't lay for several days. When she was healthy enough to lay an egg, the weasel knew that he could drink from her again without hurting her. Sometimes the weasel would also eat the egg.
Abby's keeper didn't know about the weasels or about how sweet the weasels could be to the chickens—how the chickens who did figure out what the weasels were doing didn't mind because laying eggs hurt and a few days off was a nice break and the weasels were warm and soft and gentle. Abby's keeper just knew that the chickens weren't laying. She didn't like that. Also, she didn't like Abby. She knew Abby was smart though, so she wanted Abby to figure out why the chickens weren't laying.
She never did. Abby didn't learn why the chickens weren't laying, because when Abby was there—there in the chicken coop—the weasels didn't come. The chickens started laying again. The weasels went hungry for a while, but weasels can go for a long time without food, so it was alright.
What Abby did learn—what she learned when she was staying with the chickens—she learned how to suck eggs. She had seen her keeper do it many times, but Abby had never tried. Her keeper had never let her have an egg. Abby learned how to make a little hole in one end with a stick and a bigger hole in the other end. And then she would suck the runny yolk and slippery clear part out. When she finished eating—when she wasn't hungry anymore—Abby would crush the shells and mix them in with the wood chips and the chicken manure so that her keeper didn't find out that she was eating the eggs. Because Abby was smart.
The chickens all laid many eggs and Abby only ate some of them. This meant that there were more eggs laid after Abby's keeper started locking Abby in the chicken coop than there were before. Abby's keeper liked that. She didn't like Abby. She moved Abby's cot into the chicken coop and stored empty jars under the stairs in the root cellar. Abby didn't mind. She sucked eggs and she grew strong. Sometimes the chickens missed the weasels, but they liked Abby, so it was alright.
When she was big enough, Abby left the chicken coop and she left her keeper. Abby took the chickens with her when she left. Abby's keeper tried to stop her, but Abby was strong now, as well as smart, so Abby locked her keeper in the chicken coop. And then she left.
Abby's keeper really didn't like Abby. When Abby's keeper got tired of shouting and screaming for help, she cried. Then she fell asleep.
After that, the weasels came back. There were many weasels. Weasels can go a long time without food. Not forever. It had been a long time since they had taken blood from the chickens. They liked the blood from the chickens. What they found when they passed through the weasel-sized chinks between the wooden panels of the chicken coop's walls was not chickens. It was something else. It was asleep. The weasels would have preferred chickens, but they were hungry, so it was alright.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "...physically, he had not always been what he was..."
Source: A Tale of the Ragged Mountains by Edgar Allan Poe
My father missed no opportunity to remind me that physically, he had not always been what he was—that he had spent the first half of his life as a female. He was, technically, my mother. In that he had undergone his transformation when I was less than a year old, however, and in that my biological father was entirely unknown to me until many years later, the person whose womb bore me to viability was, and always would be, my father.
Sometimes he referred to his past form to emphasize the array of experiences that we held in common—I know what it's like to be a little girl, young woman, etc. More often, he mentioned it in order to encourage me to experiment and to explore—to try new things, unhindered by conventions that continue, even now, to outlive their relevance or their utility.
If my father's greatest dream for me was that I pursue novel interests without regard for societal norms, he would not have been disappointed. It is difficult for me to imagine—nay, I cannot imagine—any way in which I might more entirely have escaped the trajectory that nature and human expectations had set for me.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "Anything that can be bought can be sold down the road for more..."
Source: The Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie
The sign hanging over the entrance to the Traveler's Market proclaimed "Anything that can be bought can be sold down the road for more." It's a common assumption. Evidence of its truth is scarce.
The Traveler's Market was not the largest market that Belen had visited on her long journey to the edge of the world. It was the most important one though. It was the last market. Beyond it was just the road, and where the road might lead was anyone's guess.
Belen's brother, Octo, had taken the road, carrying a telescope and a set of throwing knives and ten vacuum-sealed packets of smoked sockeye salmon. Six years later, he had not returned.
Belen's father, Folost, was one of the first to travel the road. Folost had carried a sack of potatoes, an old ukelele, and a paperback novel from which the front cover had been torn. He had been a boy when he left, but when he returned, a week later, he was a full-grown man. He returned pushing a wheelbarrow full of platinum ingots and carrying the weapons to protect his loot. He could not speak of his adventures though. Like all who returned, Folost remembered not a thing that had occurred since his departure. The disparity between his thirteen-year-old pauper's memories and his thirty-something strongman's body, equipped like a soldier and possessed of immense material wealth, seemed to be too much for Folost. He devolved into a morally bereft glutton for pleasure, power, and praise. Or maybe that's who he would have become anyway.
Octo was born a year after Folost's return, to the first of a string of wives. Belen was the daughter of one of her father's pubescent serving girls.
Now, Belen stood poised to follow in his steps—his physical steps, not, she hoped, his path in life. She was not seeking adventure and wealth, as he had been, nor escape from expectations, as Octo had. She was looking for something else—and she hoped to find Octo along the way.
First, though provisions for the journey and goods for bartering with whoever—or whatever— she met. Those who actually returned bearing evidence of success in their travels (none had returned with any memories intact) were often the ones who had carried with them unusual items—things of little apparent worth. Those who carried many tools and technologies or obviously valuable raw materials, however, seemed more likely to come back ruined, or never to return at all.
When Belen left the market, when she set her face towards the road and her feet met the first stones of its dusty gravel, she carried a salami sandwich and a thermos of coffee and a box of one hundred individually-wrapped packets of facial tissues. She also carried a crowbar.
This is to let you know that I will no longer be posting them here every day. I will post them sometimes—just not every day. This is for a couple of reasons:
1) Although I limit the time that I spend writing them by hand to what is posted (usually 15 minutes), I do spend quite a bit of time correcting and revising them before I actually post them. That time could often be better spent writing new material or revising early drafts in preparation for submission.
2) Occasionally, one of these timed writing exercises turns into a fairly complete piece in and of itself. When this happens, I'd like to be able to submit it to one of the flash fiction markets without running into exclusivity issues.
So... I will continue to write these exercises and I will post some of them, but not every day. And the best ones may not show up at all. If and when any of them get published, however, you can be sure to hear all about it right here!
Thanks for reading and please do leave comments. I read and respond to all of them!
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "They were angry because of the ill treatment they had received"
Source: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Honorable Council of Extrapolatory Trajectorians was Vayart's great frustration.
He had attended six of their open meetings, had presented his case twice, in great detail, and had paid separate visits to all of the council's most distinguished and influential senior members. He had practically begged.
Individually, many of the "Extrajects," as they preferred not to be called, had lent Vayart a sympathetic ear—even acted supportive of his expansionist cause. As a body however, they had remained fixed in their position. Unwavering. Resolute. Stupid.
"Gods, I'm sick of these people," Vayart said to nobody in particular—to the louvered walls of his study, to the lamilace floor panels, to Pledi, who was reclining behind Vayart's desk, with a bored pout marring her ever-enticing features.
"It must be council day again, my love," said Pledi. She stood and approached Vayart. "You smell like you've been mingling with the Extrajects again."
"And you smell like you." Vayart kissed her on the lips and moved past toward the desk. Pledi was one of the two females participating in Vayart's current quaternary domest, and what she lacked in respect for her spouses' personal workspaces, she more than compensated for with her terrifying capacity to dissect political conspiracies. Vayart had, on more than one occasion, considered proposing a dissolution of the domest so that he could court Pledi as a dedicated business partner instead.
"They refuse to understand," said Vayart. "They just don't..." He turned his back on Pledi so as to hide the flush of frustration and the tears of rage that came as he recalled the day's failed attempts to win powerful converts. Pledi wrapped her arms around his shoulders, rested her hands on his chest, and pressed into his back.
"Can you blame them?" she said. "They're angry."
It was true. The Extrajects were angry, and at least the most senior among them were justly offended. They were angry because of the ill treatment they had received at the hands of the previous ruling party, the Pragrevs. Pragmatist Revisionaries. Now that they had established dominance once again, the Extrajects, the party historically known for liberal thought and exploratory schemes had collapsed into itself—involuted. They would hear no new ideas generated from outside the council. That one-time organ of intellectual fecundity had withered to a sterile prune— from fear and from lack of contact with novel inspirations and currently relevant stimulation.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "...the ear would come back some day"
Source: Great Kernplatz Experiment by A. Conan Doyle
I was probably a good deal too young, at the age of eight, to have been Mother's laboratory assistant. I realize that now, and she came to the same conclusion by the end of her life. At the time, though, she needed someone. I was there.
She was careful to isolate me from the hazards of her work. Sometimes that meant locking me in the bunker below the wine cellar with food, water, books, and later, when I was older, a telegnoster console. More often, my mother would send me on errands, and when I returned, the dangerous elements of her work would be accomplished. I was never there to witness anything spectacular, except for once.
"Gwilam, come in here." I followed Mother's voice from my own little work shed into her laboratory.
"I need you to ride to town," she said. She stood beside a machine that I had never seen before, though many of its parts were familiar: the synchronic array from a prism replicator, the power supply from an annihilator beam shear, a symbol generator from a deconfabulator module that had never worked, and at least a hundred mirror lens magnets mounted in staggered rows to the surface of a carbon resonosphere.
"What is it?" I said. I wanted to touch the new creation, to tongue its taste keys and whistle its windswitches.
"I need an ear of corn," said Mother. "If you ride fast, you'll make it before the market closes."
"But I want to see the new—"
"Gwilam, do as you're told," she said. "Take money from my bureau—you know where. Be quick, now."
I cast another wishful glance at the sparkling toe loops that dangled from the new device's polished belly, and I left.
Lightning was the name of my pedaldrive. It was the pride of my existence. Mother and I had built it together and I did all of the maintenance. I cleaned Lightning's chain and cogs. I polished its spokes and repaired chips to the paint on Lightning's frame. I patched its tyres when need arose. Although I regretted having to leave Mother's new machine, permission to ride Lightning all the way to town on my own—even down the spiral ramp at the relay— did much to soften my disappointment.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "By midmorning another man had died"
Source: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
When Elsa woke from a too-brief rest to checked on her patients, three of them had gone. The young woman and her two sons. Departed. Moved on. By breakfast, the old man—Andrew, the librarian—had passed as well, and by midmorning another man had died—someone Elsa had not met prior to his panicked arrival at her clinic, the night before.
Elsa lifted the smaller of the two boys' bodies and lay it beside the larger. It was already cool, but still supple. The two bodies fit easily on one gurney. Elsa had delivered them both as babies. Two years difference in dates of birth, plus or minus some months. Same date of death. Elsa pulled a sheet over the bodies and wheeled them to the courtyard, where the winter air would buy her some time in the race against decay. She lowered the gurney and slid the bodies, first one, then the other, to the ground. They were accepted, silently into the company of six other bodies. Their mother's joined them minutes later.
The phone was still dead.
The people—the patients—they hadn't come all at once. Not all together. Just as they didn't leave together.
The first to come was the woman with two little boys who cried. The bigger one sobbed and complained in words. The smaller one moaned and sometimes screamed. They both coughed red stains onto their mother's skirt. She coughed red into the handkerchief that she also used to wipe her sons' red-snotty noses. The smaller boy's diaper was heavy with red and his skin lost color even in the time that it took Elsa to place a line and start intravenous fluids.
Those first three patients—the mother and her two boys—they got the two units of almost-expired type-O blood that the hospital in the city sent every two weeks to keep on hand for emergencies. They also got the plasma packs from the freezer. Later, when more patients arrived, Elsa regretted having used all of her fresh frozen plasma so quickly. When the power failed and she lost refrigeration though, she was glad.
After the mother and sons came a foursome of furnace workers. They stumbled. They had difficulty speaking. Couldn't answer her questions. Three men and someone that turned out to be a woman once Elsa had removed multiple layers of personal protective equipment. They were all febrile and dehydrated and one of the men collapsed on the floor of the waiting area. While Elsa tried to place an intravenous line in his arm, he died in a pool of what issued from his mouth and nose and anus. The woman vomited and the vomitus was black and red. The other two men sat down on the floor. Those four workers were the first to die. First the one man, then the other two, and finally the woman. All within two hours of their arrival.
When Elsa had finished moving the fourth of those first bodies to the courtyard and had cleaned up the mess in the waiting area, she visited the little boys and their mother. All three were asleep. Elsa tried to call the hospital in the city, but the line was busy. She tried the security office at the furnace. There was no answer. While she waited, with the receiver to her ear, listening to a throbbing sound that represented the distant ringtone, the connection died. After that, when she picked up the receiver, there wasn't even a dial tone.
Andrew, the librarian—also the postmaster and the person who could get order liquor and medicines—arrived at sundown of the first day. He said there had been an accident at the furnace. Dried trails of red clung to his face below his eyes and his nostrils, and on his chin. He breathed heavily and he was pale beneath age spots. He asked Elsa what he could do to help.
Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "He'd been under the ice, under the water, for ten minutes"
Source: Complicity by Iain Banks
John Parkin was cold. Cold and frustrated. He'd been under the ice, under the water, for ten minutes, and there was no sign of the person he'd come to meet. Under the ice, the message had said. At dawn. Come alone. Questions answered. Fears forgotten. Purpose found.
Dawn. A little more specificity would have been nice. Or maybe the messager could have been there early, waiting for John. He checked the pressure gauge on his tank. Still another forty minutes of air, but even with the dry suit, John wasn't sure he could stand the cold that long.
When he called meetings with unknowns, he used cafés with fireplaces and comfortable chairs—or if season and weather permitted, outdoor tables under pergolas. Steaming cups of coffee. Toddy to warm the throat. Hot soup. Warmth.
John checked his watch. Nearly fifteen minutes under the ice. He should have set up a breathing hose. At this shallow depth, decompression wouldn't be an issue, but if he had to go up to switch tanks and missed his contact... well, he didn't even know what would happen if he did meet the messager.
Perhaps he could just climb back through the hole he'd cut and wait on top of the ice. He could stick his face in the water every few minutes to see if someone was there. The message hadn't specifically said that he had to be under the ice himself. The meeting would occur under the ice. That's what it meant. John kick his fins and swam toward the round hole.
As he hooked his elbows over the cut edge of the ice, it shuddered and he lost his purchase, slid back under the water. A booming roar sounded all around, muted by the hood of the dry suit and the air pocketed inside, but still deafening. John looked down. Directly below him, still far away in the blue-black, was a lighter spot—vaguely circular. It grew rapidly and assumed distinctive features. A face. A human face—except big. Too big. And growing bigger as it rushed upward. It's mouth gaped wide and green teeth bordered a deeper blackness. Its eyes were shut.
John's pulse drummed in his ears, competing with the ambient roar. He was breathing hard and fast, burning through his tank too rapidly, he knew. He must be calm. He reached for the hole again, but discovered that he'd sunk deeper without knowing it. He kicked frantically, but now there was a current fighting him—pulling him down.
The face slowed its ascent and stopped ten feet below the surface. Thirty feet in diameter, it occupied his entire field of view. The noise stopped and the mouth closed. In that cold silence, the eyes opened.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "...my neighbors are all there, fearful, watching..."
Source: The Parade Ends by Reinaldo Arenas
When the Big End finally begins, I am on the toilet. At least I'm not alone. Okay, that's not what I mean, and you know it. There's nobody on the toilet with me. There's nobody else in the bathroom, even. But of the five billion or so people who are awake when the End starts, at least ten million—at least!—must be enthroned on a crapper.
By the time I get myself out the door (and yes, even though it won't matter, I do wash my hands) and into the street, my neighbors are all there, fearful, watching. It's six in the morning so even though this is the appointed day, only a few people were actually looking at the sky when the Enders appeared. Now those few—those happy few?—are describing it to everyone else—how these zillions of bright dots just showed up all over the sky, shining in the morning sun.
We all knew they were coming. They'd been telling us for years. Knowing didn't help though. Made things worse, actually. You can tell a goldfish every day for a year that on the first of April, you're going to drain her bowl. Can the stupid fish do a goddamn thing to save his tail?
Okay, bad example. Goldfish don't talk... or listen. So let's say cancer. Tell me I've got malignant melanoma with mets to the brain and I have a month to live. Nothing to be done. Thanks. So happy to know. Now fuck off and let me try to forget—try to remember what it was I was doing before you told me.
Churches have done pretty well since the announcements started. All the religions, really. Lots of soul-searching and good-doing. A whole lot of sinning too, of course. Never been so easy to get laid. No lasting consequences that would have to be dealt with for very long.
And then there were the drugs... I finally tried a whole load of shit I'd been too scared to touch before. Amazing stuff. I can't afford any of it now though. I grow what I can, like most folks, but the raw materials for the designer recipes—can't get hold of it anymore.
Now I'm just happy the water and sanitation still run. Lots of things have broken down and crapped out as folks quit going to work (who can blame them?), but as long as my toilet flushes and I can take a shower every few days, I'm okay.
The most desperate of the mega-rich bought themselves berths on space stations. I guess if there's still a planetary mass to hold them in orbit when it's all over and if they find some way of getting back down to earth and if there's anything left on earth to be worth living for, their escape might do them some good. A lot of ifs. Mostly it just seems like a sad attempt at palliation to me.
You can let the tumor kill you in thirty days and keep feeling sort-of okay for half that time, or there's this chemotherapy that'll make you sick off your ass, starting right now and you can expect to live an extra three to six days in exchange for your suffering. No thank you, doctor. Give me whatever the Enders bring us today and let me burn with everyone else.
If that's even what happens. The Enders haven't provided much in the way of specifics. They just showed up on TV and radio and all over the internet, telling us, in every language spoken, that if we wanted to survive, we should evacuate before the End—before they arrived. They told us what day they'd be here, but didn't tell us how the End would go down. Maybe if we'd believed them sooner and gotten busy, we could have sent at least a few promising survivors out the door, off the planet. A little seed of us that might survive.
Our response? Neither intelligent nor constructive.
Ha ha. Great hoax. We're all amused. Victory to the annoying little pranksters. Just wait till we catch your sorry little asses.
Guaranteed immunity to the international info-bombing terrorists if they will only please confirm that this is all in jest and please just fucking quit already.
Somebody, anybody, please, tell us how the fuck they're doing this and how come we can't control our own transmissions anymore.
What if it's for real? It's probably for real. Shit.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "He picked up his walking stick to steady himself as naturally as if..."
Source: Ginger Stuyvesant and the Case of the Haunted Nursery by Mary Robinette Kowal
When Tafferk put on the old man, Baeli could not help but admiring the apparent ease with which he made the transition to the body of an aged biped. Tafferk sat up from the bed, looked around at the sterile hospice room, and swung his two feet round to the floor. He picked up his walking stick to steady himself as naturally as if he had always possessed grasping appendages, and his shamble toward the door suggested decrepitude rather than inexperience.
Baeli, far more practiced with the human form, followed Tafferk down the hallway to the common dining area. It was small. The facility comprised sixty guest suites, three exam rooms, a minor procedures room, administrative offices, two family conference rooms, an interfaith chapel, a big-screen TV room that could double as a performance venue, a kitchen, and this dining room. The home maintained maximum occupancy. There was always a waiting list.
In the three months since Baeli had taken up residence in the body of her emphysematous and demented assignment, she had never seen more than three of the residents in the dining room at a time. Most ate in their rooms—of those who ate at all. It was common for the guests of Sustaining Peace Hospice Home to refuse food. Especially those who would be staying only a short time.
"Well, Tafferk," Baeli said, her scratchy wisp of a voice still a surprise to her own ear with every use, "yoru initial impressions?"
Tafferk grunted, took a deep breath, opened his mouth to speak, and made no sound. He leaned the cane against a table and lowered himself into a chair. He closed his eyes. Baeli sat across from him. After several minutes of silence, Tafferk tried again.
"This brain..." he said, "this brain has so much..." Tafferk rested his forehead in his hands for a few moments, then continued. "I don't... I can't..." He took several deep breaths as though the effort of speech had exhausted him.
"It's alright, Tafferk," Baeli said. "The tumor has taken much. Don't try to speak if it's difficult or painful. Give it time."
"Not painful," Tafferk said. "Just so little... so few words. So much life. Memories. Cannot say."
"It might improve as you grow accustomed to the brain and the body," Baeli told him. It had certainly taken her some time to adjust. "When I came to this one, it was a terrible mess," she said. "I spent a week just getting the memory fragments sorted chronologically and then I had to repair and reconcile them all." It had been the hardest job of her career... and the most satisfying. Baeli could hardly wait to see the reaction of the brain's owner when she returned.
"Memories clear," Tafferk said. "Clear. Clean." Then, after a few moments, "Talk is hard."
Baeli laid a hand on top of Tafferk's and gave it a little squeeze. "You may not have time to repair everything, you know. Just do what you can. He will appreciate it when he returns for his end."
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "This man follows me everywhere with nothing but his goatskin parchment and writes incessantly."
Source: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Sometimes I have this dream—not always when I'm asleep, neither—I have this dream where this man follows me everywhere with nothing but his goatskin parchment and writes incessantly. He just writes and writes and he follows me around and then he disappears.
I had the dream this morning and I wasn't asleep. I was loading river rock from where the dump truck left it for a landscaping job out on the East side. I was loading it into a wheelbarrow and I looked up and there was the guy with the parchment. He was just leaning against a fir tree, writing. Writing on his dirty old piece of parchment and looking over at me now and then.
So I said to him—and it weren't the first time I tried talking to him even though he never answers—I said, "That parchment of yours has gotta be about used up by now," and then I said, "What are you writing, anyway?" And at first I thought he would ignore me and just fade away into thin air like he'd always done before, or just keep writing. I scooped up another shovel of river rocks from the pile, but then he talked and I put the shovel down.
He said, "Yes, Casey, the book is nearly complete—nearly full."
"So you can talk," I said. "My dream can talk."
And he said, "I'm not your dream, Casey," and I said he had to be my dream or my hallucination or something 'cause nobody else had seen him and he appeared and disappeared and sometimes I saw him when I was asleep and if he wasn't my dream then what the hell was he and he said, "I'm your chronicler."
"What the hell do I need a chronicler for? I'm nobody important." Even though I didn't think he was real, I wanted him to know that I knew the word chronicler, because he acted like he thought I might not know it and if he was chronicling my life, he ought to know that I knew a lot of stuff. I finished school and I read a lot of books, so I have a big vocabulary even if I don't talk like I do so as to not sound pretentious around other folk. And I knew something else.
I knew that as long as he only used words I knew, he might still be my dream or my hallucination, so I tried to keep him talking and I listened real close, cause he'd got my attention. Got me listening. When he said the thing about the book being nearly complete. Thinking about that after he said he was my chronicler, well that kind of made me nervous.
"So what happens when you finish the book?" I said.
Time: 20 minutes
Prompt: "The flower stems have grown so thick she can no longer see..."
Source: A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot
Tivaine makes her home in the perennial bed where small animals come to gnaw on the daffodil and gladiolus bulbs. At first, it was an optimal location. She could hide among the thyme clusters at the periphery, knife in hand, and leap on her prey while its mouth was occupied with fibrous vegetal matter. The garden has been too long neglected though, and now the flower stems have grown so thick she can no longer see the creatures that she hunts before they have heard or smelled her, and have fled the place. Also, Tivaine is slower now.
After a fruitless vigil in the overrun berry patch, Tivaine gives up and goes home. She sheathes her blade. She fights her way through towering stems back to the hovel of twigs and feathers and mole pelts that she calls home. The life growing inside her twists and shifts. Its fists prod and it kicks. It is nearly ready.
Three long strips of dried shrew flesh and a pickled rat heart are the last of Tivaine's food stores. They will be enough. She eats a few bites of the jerky and wraps the rest in a wilted leaf. She adds it to a row of disparate items placed in the center of a rat hide: a shard of mirrored glass that she saved from a rubble pile; a pair of polished black stones, each a little smaller than a kernel of corn—perfect for cracking skulls; a bone the length of Tivaine's thigh, scraped clean and very dry; and the knife.
The knife was a gift from Tivaine's parent. When Tivaine woke to consciousness and memory, she examined her parent's remains, looking for a message in its mutilated face or its ruined body. All meaning had been consumed. Infant Tivaine—animal Tivaine—would have seen to that.
That primal Tivaine would have torn her way out of the parent's womb and turned immediately to devour the soft parts of the parent. The liver and spleen and kidneys first. Easy to chew, nourishing. Then muscles. She would have clawed through the diaphragm and wrenched the heart and lungs and thymus free of the ribcage. After glutting herself on them, she might have been sated for a while. She might have rested while the meal made her strong—strong enough to crush the parent's skull with a rock.
The brain was the last part of a parent that the offspring ever ate, because with the brain came understanding, knowledge, and empathy. When she ate her parent's brain, Tivaine remembered.
She remembered the months of anticipation. The preparations. She remembered the making of a gift. And a name. When she ate her parent's brain, she remembered the name that had never been uttered. She was Tivaine.
Tivaine remembered a path that she had never walked, to a brook that she had never touched. She went there and she washed herself—washed the gore and blood of her parent out of her hair, off of her skin. Then she went to the hiding place that she remembered—a place known only to the parent. There she found the knife.
The knife was new and Tivaine had no memories from her parent of using it. She remembered only what the parent had imagined for the knife. Tivaine returned to the parent's carcass and cut it into small pieces with the knife. She forced the knife into the spaces between bones and she separated the joints. She dragged the flesh-covered bones to a clearing and stood aside to watch. Soon an animal came. It was huge—too big for Tivaine to attack. She was afraid that it would eat all of the bait. It left one piece.
Tivaine grew hungry as she waited. Two nights she stood vigil over the last fragment of her parent. On the third night, a smaller animal arrived—a rat. It took the mangled prize in its jaws and scampered toward the shelter. Not quickly enough.
Tivaine leapt upon its back and plunged her blade into its neck. The rat bucked and squirmed. It tried to dislodge her with its feet. It tried to twist round and bite her. Tivaine thrust her fingers into the rat's eye socket and dug hard. The rat shrieked. Tivaine withdrew the knife and thrust again. She cranked it forward and back, sawed. The rat scratched her with its hind legs, but it grew weak as its blood flowed.
Tivaine held strong until the rat stopped moving. She ate the rat's liver and spleen and kidneys. She kept its heart and pickled it the way she remembered to do. She skinned the rat and scraped its hide.
Tivaine carried the final bait bone of her parent—a thigh bone—to the brook and washed it and scraped it clean with the knife. At the brook she found two round stones and carried them back to the rat. She used them to fracture its skull. She left the skull open, the brain exposed, and she waited, with her knife, for the next scavenger to arrive.
Tivaine sets the stones and the pickled rat's heart beside her bed and then she wraps the knife and the shrew meat and the mirror and the thigh bone in the rat's skin. She carries the bundle to a place known only to her. A place that will be remembered. She hides the bundle well. She returns to her home, to her bed, and she eats the pickled heart. She waits.
When it comes—the pain inside—it is not so sharp as she had expected. It is vague at first and dull—almost nausea more than pain. It takes a long time. So long. Tivaine wonders if she should have kept the knife close by—she might have helped things along from the outside. But then the skin tents and a new, more intense pain screams for attention. A tiny claw pierces Tivaine's abdomen, then another. They push out from one another, tearing a rent, opening a door.
The morning light grows dim. Tivaine is aware of a shrill wailing—a new voice. In the final moments before she surrenders to the black and the silence and the cold, Tivaine sees a face. It is small and hungry. Tivaine thinks one more thought before she dies. One more memory. She thinks a name.
Time: 15 minutes
Prompt: "She'd been determined to find mistakes and lapses"
Source: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
It wasn't, as all of Dr. Anis's pupils supposed, that she was determined to find mistakes and lapses—their mistakes and lapses—but simply that she'd managed ship operations for so many decades prior to accepting the professorship, that if a mistake or lapse occurred, she could not help but notice. She was not unkind. She was efficient.
"Your engine cycling algorithm is inadequate for at least four plausible eventualities. Fail."
"There is no sliding adjustment for anticipated metal fatigue. Perhaps these struts will outlast you, Mister Jordan, but I certainly do not expect that they will outlast this ship's period of service. Fail."
"Sloppy matrix configuration. When a future programming curator has to update your code, he will waste precious minutes orienting himself to this mess. Fail."
When I wrote my first practical with Dr. Anis, she didn't bother to explain her monosyllabic response. "Fail," she said, and she exited the chamber.
I puzzled over it for days. I scoured my project—a rapid deployment plan for a prototype star sail—but I found no errors. I cleared every element with the engineers, then back-tracked to the materials scientists and even the theoretical physicists. They all confirmed the quality of my work. Finally I scheduled an appointment to speak with Dr. Anis.
"Yes, Mister Dioshi," she said. "Your plan is entirely functional."
"And yet, I failed," I said.
"No," she said. "You did not fail. Your project failed. You will have a prosperous and rewarding career. Failures will be rare for you."
"So you just wanted me to have the experience?" I said. I excluded sarcasm from my voice.
"Mister Dioshi," she said, "when you have found the flaw in your project—there is one—schedule another presentation session. Until then, we needn't meet."
Armed with the assurance that the plan itself was sound, I sat all night before my vis-array, running through the presentation over and over again, altering the variable values, determined to find a scenario for which the system might break down. Each time I saw the same elegant extensions of telescoping rods and rapid grow nanobundles, the same expanding networks of trellises and spiderwebs spanned by monolayer collector surfaces and focussing reflectors. Sleep assailed me, but I warded it off with sublingual stimulant tabs.
In my summary animations, various classes of critical motivators were represented by color-coded points. When I started the simulation for an eleventh time, I could hardly keep my eyes open and the colors blurred. For several seconds, my mind wandered and I lost track of which bright dots in the display volume represented explosive bolts, which were microthrusters, and which designated static oscillation points. They became just so many colorful lights dancing in the dark.
The next morning, I found Dr. Anis in the library.
"You are ready," she said. It was not a question.
I presented the plan again. This time I pulled a representative ray of the sail into focus and employed unambiguous symbols—all in grayscale—for the various elements.
When I finished, Dr. Anis said, "Color blindness has not been reported in over three centuries, Mister Dioshi. Many instructors therefore consider color-coding acceptable. I do not." And then she said, "Have you considered what your next project will be?"
She had never uttered the word "pass," that anyone could recall, and she never would. For Dr. Anis, there was "fail" and there was everything else. I relished that little dose of everything else, knowing all too well, just how transient it might be.
As you've probably noticed, if this is not your first time visiting my blog, the appearance has changed. And if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you'll have seen that my online presence has recently become more coordinated and interconnected. Much of this was inspired by advice received from instructors and classmates over the past six weeks at Clarion West Writers Workshop. My efforts got a big boost yesterday, however, when I participated in a workshop for writers that focused on establishing an effective online presence.
Taught via Google+ Hangouts by author and editor Cat Rambo, the course covered basics of blogging and social networks, including their various strengths and vulnerabilities. Content and style decisions, conventions and etiquette, and emerging strategies for maximizing traffic were all discussed, as were several methods for tracking and analyzing performance.
I left the workshop with a full brain and many pages of notes. It will be some time before I manage to implement all (or even much) of what I learned, but you can expect to see ongoing changes—improvements, I hope (if not, let me know).
Cat will be teaching this workshop again in November, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone interested in building or improving an online presence. I have taken several writing workshops from her, both online and in person, and she is a phenomenal teacher—knowledgeable, organized, efficient, and always lots of fun.
Time: 9 minutes
Prompt: "Small hands hold fast to thin leashes"
Source: Ocean City, Maryland by Kathe L. Palka
Out on the bubble deck, the usual crowd mills about under the star-speckled black. It's noon by the ship's clock, but the planeters still act as though it's night. They yawn or whisper or blink up their timestamps.
Only the children—those born aboard—exhibit no nocturnal behaviors in the presence of the perpetual night sky. They cavort on the synthetic lawn that grows from the metalic floor whenever it is desired by a majority of the promenaders. Small hands hold fast to thin leashes—each leash tethering counter-gravitational toys. Some are animals, some miniatures of the ship—or of other ships, real or imagined.
The game is to direct one's toy upward, all the way to the bubble top, and then employ the toy's probe tongue to dimple the bubble. Not a major impact—just enough to attract the maintenance bots. Then the driver of the toy yanks at the leash and hauls the offending toy far from the point of insult and disappears with it into the crowd, squealing with laughter.
The bots inspect the dimple and iron it flat. The children cannot actually damage the bubble and the dimples would eventually repair themselves, given the time, but the ship likes the children, so it indulges them. It facilitates their illusions of agency in a world kept too safe from within, and still too menaced from without. The ship plays the children's game.